On Monday 20 July 2020 the Congregation for the Clergy issued an interesting Instruction entitled The pastoral conversion of the Parish community in the service of the evangelising mission of the Church. This rather lenghty document of 22 pages offers us some points of reflection which are worthing pondering upon, especially in the light of the present situation where church attendance is steadily declining.
The first chapter of the Instruction presents a powerful vision of what a parish, set within the contemporary context of an ever changing society, should be. It says that “Christian communities [should] be ever more centres conducive to an encounter with Christ” (no.3). The more the prevailing trend tends to overemphasize the individual to the extent that it is relaying to us surreal life styles marked by individualistic mentality the more the parish is there to foster the culture of encounter. In this I am reminded of what Pope Francis said in his morning meditation in the chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae on Tuesday 13 September 2016 when he spoke on the theme For a culture of encounter. In that inspiring homily the Holy Father said: “An invitation to work for ‘the culture of encounter’, in a simple way, ‘as Jesus did’: not just seeing, but looking; not just hearing, but listening; not just passing people by, but stopping with them; not just saying ‘what a shame, poor people!’, but allowing yourself to be moved with compassion; ‘and then to draw near, to touch and to say: ‘Do not weep’ and to give at least a drop of life’”.
In this document we precisely find what it means to look and not see, to listen and not hear, stopping with the people and not just passing by them, and, rather than simply showing “a vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of others,” as St John Paul II said in his encyclical Sollicitudo rei Socialis, number 38, one undertakes “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself” (no.38) to help the poor with compassion and unwavering conviction. In fact, rolling one’s sleeves to serve is an aspect that really hits the nail on its head in this Instruction. How can a parish evangelize without reaching to the poor of our time? That is why in number 32 it boldly says:
“A ‘sanctuary’ open to all, the Parish, called to reach out to everyone, without exception, should remember that the poor and excluded must always have a privileged place in the heart of the Church. As Pope Benedict XVI affirmed: ‘The Gospel is addressed in a special way to the poor’. In addition, as Pope Francis observed ‘the new evangelisation is an invitation to acknowledge the saving power at work in their lives and to put them at the centre of the Church’s pilgrim way. We are called to find Christ in them, to lend our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them’”.
It is true that pastoral conversion of the parish “must touch the proclamation of the Word” together with the “sacramental life” (no.20). Yes! From its beginning, “the parish is envisioned as a response to a precise pastoral need, namely that of bringing the Gospel to the People through the proclamation of the faith and the celebration of the Sacraments” (no.7). However, we need not limiting ourselves only to the proclamation of God’s Word without its necessary fruits, the living of that Word in practice! Again, the foundational biblical passage taken from the letter of Saint James says it all: What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without
giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But some one will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith (Jas 2: 14-18).
In this respect I cannot not show my wholehearted appreciation that the Instruction is constantly offering a unified vision of the pastoral conversion of the parish community by including “the witness of charity” (no.20). In number 19 the Instruction brings out the dynamism of this charity witness when it says: “Over and above places and reasons for membership, the Parish community is the human context wherein the evangelising work of the Church is carried out, where Sacraments are celebrated and where charity is exercised, all with missionary zeal, which, apart from being an intrinsic part of pastoral action, is a litmus test of its authenticity. In this present age, marked at times by marginalisation and solitude, the Parish community is called to be a living sign of the proximity of Christ through fraternal bonds, ever attentive to new forms of poverty” (no.19).
This permanent call of “exercis[ing] charity in daily life” (no. 31) has the power of converting the parish’s structures too! By “conversion of structures”, the Instruction intends “a significant change in mentality and an interior renewal, [which the Church must undertake,] especially among those entrusted with the responsibility of pastoral leadership. In order to remain faithful to the mandate of Christ, pastors, especially Parish Priests who ‘are co-workers of the bishop in a very special way’, must resolutely grasp the need for a missionary reform of pastoral action” (no.35). The conversion of structures itself makes it possible that “all the baptised, by virtue of the gift of the Holy Spirit and their infused charisms, become active participants of evangelisation, in the style and modality of an organic community, together with other Parish communities or at the diocesan level. In effect, the whole community, and not simply the hierarchy, is the responsible agent of mission, since the Church is identified as the entire People of God” (no.38).
Another visible sign of this pastoral conversion is the reform in the parish finance council. The latter’s appropriate way of functioning should be centred on transparency. Let us not forget that “the Finance Council fulfils a role of particular importance in the growth, at the level of the Parish community, of a culture of co-responsibility, of administrative transparency, and of service to the needs of the Church”. Moreover, as document details, “transparency should not be understood as a mere formal presentation of statistics, but more as information that is the community’s due, and an advantageous opportunity for its formative involvement. Transparency refers to a modus agendi, indispensable for the credibility of the Church, especially where there are significant goods to administer” (no.106). It is interesting to note that the parish priest is to “be assisted by collaborators to administrate the goods of the Church above all with evangelising zeal and a missionary spirit” (no.101).
A final word about the offerings for the celebration of the Sacraments. The Instruction states that “an offering, by its very nature, must be a free act on the part of the one offering, left to one’s conscience and sense of ecclesial responsibility, not a ‘price to pay’ or a ‘fee to exact’, as if dealing with a sort of ‘tax on the Sacraments’” (no.118). Thus, already ‘with the offering for Holy Mass, ‘The Christian faithful […] contribute to the good of the Church and […] share its concern to support its ministers and works’”. Certainly, “priests, for their part, offer virtuous examples in their use of money, whether it be that of a sober lifestyle, without excess on a personal level, or that of a transparent management of Parish goods” (no.120).
This pastoral conversion, which embraces people and the structures they operate in, squarely shows a Church “that walks through history as the ‘family of God’ and that, in the synergy of its diverse members, labours for the growth of the entire ecclesial body.” Thus, a parish inspired by this vision of Church truly becomes “the parish on the move” (no.123).
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap